The words we use to characterize and describe events guide our thinking and perception of these events.
The construct of “terrorism” has emerged in prominence during the latter part of the 20th Century and is used to identify a category of violence against civilians that has the goal of advancing a political agenda. The acts of violence are unpredictable and savage, creating traumatic fear in the victims – the terror.
Understanding the mind of the terrorist typically focuses on the political agenda of the perpetrator, their extremism, and their radicalization. Efforts to identify underlying psychological characteristics shared by terrorists have been unsuccessful.
Within this construct of “terrorism,” the senseless violence in Las Vegas does not represent an act of terrorism since the killings were not with the goal of advancing a political agenda.
This distinction is false. It represents a misunderstanding for the origins of pathological violence. The “terrorist mind” that bombs a Manchester concert carries the same pathological information structures that create the profound absence of empathy, the complete absence of normal-range social morality, and the sadistic-perverse desire to create immense suffering in others, as does the “terrorist mind” of the the psychologically disturbed shooter on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel room killing concert goers below.
The distinction of political and non-political motivations for acts of savage violence reflects the ambivalence and lack of clarity in professional psychology regarding the psychological origins of pathological violence. The key to unlocking a psychological understanding for pathological violence is through the central symptom features of the pathology, an absence of empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the goal of inflicting immense suffering.
The term “terrorism” is a misnomer for pathological violence. The goal of pathological violence is not the creation of fear, it’s the creation of immense suffering. The creation of fear is a secondary feature of the pathology in gratifying power motivations. The primary goal of pathological violence is the creation of immense suffering in others. The core structure of the pathology is a profound absence of empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the sadistic-perverse goal of inflicting immense suffering. These symptom characteristics are shared across all variants of pathological violence, from Las Vegas to Manchester, from Sandy Hook to Paris.
The pathology is not terrorism, it’s pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence.
As recently as the 20th Century saw the savage brutality of trench warfare and the government endorsed use of mustard gas in World War I, and in World War II the Germans dropped bombs on London while the British and Americans bombed German cities. The goal of these civilian-targeted bombings of cities was to undermine the “morale” of the citizens for continued resistance by creating fear and terror. Was bombing civilian populations to advance a political agenda (regime change in the various countries) during World War II terrorism?
No. It represents a form of socially endorsed savage violence we call “war.”
How are we to conceptualize the violence of the Japanese rape of Nanking and the Nazi holocaust?
As “war crimes.” We seemingly have rules for the allowable degree of savage brutality we can inflict on each other. For the Allies to kill 25,000 German civilians in the bombing of Dresden is called “war.” That is allowable violence, allowable death, and allowable destruction within the rules of allowable violence in “war.”
Psychologically, we are maturing across the centuries. The violence of “war” that was once historically acceptable has become “illegal” (a “war crime”). When Joshua defeated Jericho, the soldiers slaughtered every man, woman, and child within the conquered city. In Joshua’s time, that was acceptable violence of “war.” Today, the wholesale slaughter of an entire city of men, women, and children would be considered a “war crime.”
As we emerge into increasing psychological health, even the sanctioned violence of “war” itself is being substantially questioned, and there is emerging an increased concern for limiting civilian casualties created by the violence of “war.”
Yet our societal history from the earliest of times is so entirely imbued with the normalization of severely pathological violence of “war” that the profession of psychology that has developed only within the 20th Century fails to recognize the psychopathology of pathological violence. The approach of professional psychology to pathological violence is shaped by justifying the pathological violence of war as somehow normal.
That it is somehow justified for the Germans, British, French, Americans, Russians, Japanese, Chinese…, to all maim and kill each other in savage acts of violence is an insane idea. The savage violence we call “war” is insane. It is societal-pathological violence, as opposed to the individualized socio-culturally influenced pathological violence of the “terrorist mind.”
The problem faced by professional psychology is that the insanity of pathological violence has been considered normal and fully acceptable since the beginnings of recorded history. As we transition into psychological health, however, our acceptance and normalization of pathological violence is being challenged.
The violence of World War I, World War II, and war in general is still not recognized as pathological. It is considered normal-range and acceptable violence. It’s not, and to understand the pathological violence of the terrorist mind requires that professional psychology reorient to its normalization of inter-humanity violence generally.
Normal-range healthy humans do not kill each other. Killing other people is not “normal” – it is pathological.
Pathology – Pathology – Pathology
Killing other humans in war is a symptom of socio-pathology. World War I was insane, and World War II that followed twenty years later was once again a societal-insanity.
Killing and maiming other humans through acts of “terrorism” to achieve a political goal is likewise a symptom of pathology, whether or not a justification is offered as it being a “war” of liberation. It is the shared socio-individual insanity of pathological violence.
Killing others in mass murder, whether done in criminal secrecy or in a public murder-suicide event, is a symptom of pathology. The core symptom features of a profound absence of empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and gratification from inflicting suffering are the same.
Placing a bomb outside a concert in Manchester is pathological violence. Shooting concert goers from a sniper’s nest of an elevated hotel room in Las Vegas is pathological violence. The killing in Syria, in Africa, and in Asia is pathological violence.
What professional psychology must fully recognize and acknowledge is that killing other people is always a sign of pathology. Always. The profound absence of empathy required to intentionally maim and kill another human being is not healthy; it is not normal.
Within our genetic diversity we are all a family, with a shared genetic origin in Africa and then across generations of complex family lineage and shared humanity. These are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers. We come from the same human source of family, and with our current levels of global travel and global genetic integration we are merging back into the same human family. Nowhere is this more fully epitomized than in the genetic diversity that forms Americans, we are a world-people from across global origins.
The peoples of France, Japan, England, Germany, Peru, Korea, Egypt, Nigeria, China, Spain, Italy… are not “enemies” – are never “enemies” – they are family of differing hues, voices, cultures, and beliefs, they are shared humanity with us. Whether they are formally designated as “citizens” of the United States or as “citizens” of another jurisdiction, we are shared humanity.
Killing other people is always a symptom of pathology. Historically, we have been severely pathological – insane. The violence of World War I is insane. The violence of the French revolution is insane. The violence of the Armenian genocide is insane.
We are emerging into psychological health.
The 20th Century has seen the emergence of professional psychology, a field focused on supporting the development of our emotional and psychological health.
The 20th Century has witnessed the implementation of child abuse protection laws and increasing concern for healthy child development.
The 20th Century has developed an increasing aversion to the pathological violence of “war” leading to constructs such as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” and efforts to limit the death and injury for non-combatants caused by “war.”
When the Israeli Irgun engaged in “terrorist” acts against the British that caused civilian deaths, this violence was framed in the context of “war” – as freedom fighters using a-symmetric military tactics in their fight to end their oppression and achieve an independent homeland.
When the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine began campaigns of a-symmetric violence against Israel and the world, they too couched their violence in justifications of “war” – as freedom-fighters seeking to end their oppression and achieve an independent homeland.
The terrorist acts of the Provisional Irish Republican Army against the British were also framed in the context of a-symmetric “warfare” – as freedom fighters seeking an end to their oppression and liberation of their homeland from foreign rule.
Until professional psychology fully recognizes that the human slaughter of “war” is itself and by definition pathological, then professional psychology will remain unclear on the nature of the terrorist mind that creates the pathological violence.
Our tolerance and normalization of violent brutalization of each other as “war” biased the early perception of these “terrorist” expressions of pathological violence. The immensely brutal violence of the French, Germans, British, Americans, Japanese, Russians, and so many others in World War I and World War II is not “normal.” That humans worldwide should kill and slaughter each other with such excessively brutal violence is not “normal.” And yet, such excessive human brutality was – and perhaps remains – normalized under the construct of “war.”
Are the violent acts of the terrorist simply a modern version of “war” – an acceptable form of violence for freedom fighters seeking self-rule. Are the violent acts of the Jewish Irgun and the violent acts of Hamas and Hezbollah normalized within the construct of “war,” or are they outside the bounds of normalized violence? Certainly, each side in “war” casts the other side as the villains.
When the world is insane, how does one recognize insanity? When the savage violence of “war” is normalized as acceptable how then are we to interpret the violence of the Irgun, the PLO, and the IRA? Is “terrorism” simply a-symmetrical warfare employed by the powerless and oppressed against their powerful oppressors?
What about al-Qaeda and Isis? Has the violence by these groups of people exceeded the bounds of “acceptable” violence in the name of national liberation? What about the violence of Syria’s civil war, has this exceeded the reasonableness for acceptable savage violence in acceptable civil wars?
Should we consider the violence of the Irgun, and the PLO, and the IRA to be the normal-range violence of “war,” justified as the a-symmetric warfare of national liberation? Or should we consider it to be pathological violence – “terrorism” – that is outside the bounds of normal-range human “war” behavior?
When the world is insane, insanity becomes normalized. From the perspective of professional psychology, the intentional killing of other human beings is not normal, it is not healthy, it is always a symptom of pathology.
A bomber in Manchester, shooters in Paris, a killer in Las Vegas, world wars, and the civil war in Syria are all symptoms of severe pathology. The violence of bombing anyone is pathological.
Once professional psychology establishes the ground for conceptualizing pathological violence, then the pathogenic information structures in the brain that create pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence can be identified.
The violent maiming and slaughter of our fellows is not normal-range behavior. Ever. The wholesale nation-sanctioned brutalization of our collective brothers and sisters, our collective children, and our collective parents is not normal. Ever.
The targeting of random people for violence is not normal. Ever. All of it is a pathological expression of anger that represents pathological violence.
Then, we can begin to unravel the pathology. It is not “war,” it is not “terrorism,” it is not “murder,” it is all pathological violence. The intentional killing of another human being is psychopathology – it is never normal.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857